Risible exegesis

Dear readers,

You can stop sending links about the … scholar… who suggests that one of the Magi was a woman.

And to think that modern scriptural “scholars” have the nerve to mock Patristic exegesis.

Have you ever seen any modern exegete reason on the basis of anything like the three “arguments” used in this case to “demonstrate” that one or more women could have been among the Magi (“magoi”)?

If it were anything other than a feminist argument, the exegete would be laughed out of any university that employed her!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Tominellay says:

    …thinking it’s certainly something he’ll never prove, but the “suggestion” will keep him booked for paid speaking engagements for some time…sheesh…

  2. Malateste says:

    Eh, I haven’t read any of Viviano’s work itself, but based on the article this looks like a fairly straightforward case of some dumb journalist reducing a nuanced scholarly argument into a ridiculous parody of itself in the interests of producing a headline-worthy story. Happens all the time in the sciences, where “Survey of 50 men shows very slight association between high egg consumption and stress levels” regularly becomes “EGGS CAUSE CANCER! STORY AT 11” by the time it hits the national news.

    Insofar as he’s directly quoted, Viviano actually appears to by trying to make an exclusively literary/interpretive (and to my mind, not necessarily invalid) point about the importance of “feminine resonances” in the text, and possibly a negative case for not being able to definitively rule out the presence of women in the company of the magi– but the dunderheaded BALTHASAR WAS A GIRL!! NEW MANGER FIGURE NEEDED! angle appears to be coming exclusively from the reporter’s end. Such a surprise and disappointment, too, coming from a internationally-renowned pillar of journalistic excellence like the St. Louis Beacon.

  3. Henry Edwards says:

    I couldn’t imagine why anyone might care in the slightest whether one or more of these of these wise persons or perdaughters were women, until I read the following chatter:

    “That would be wonderful, women among the magi,” said Ellie Chapman, a longtime member of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Central West End where her late husband the Rev. Bill Chapman was pastor. “I love the idea. It will change the way I think about the magi story.”

    Chapman sees a practical aspect. The pastor’s widow recalled that for the 15 or so years she was involved in her parish’s annual children’s Christmas nativity pageants. “We would have loved having one more role for a girl,” she said. . . . .

    She was so excited about the idea that a serious scholar had proposed the theory that she immediately planned to phone a parishioner who years ago made other figures for the church’s nativity display to ask whether the woman might add a “wise woman” by Christmas Eve.

    “Oh, I think Trinity will love it,” Chapman said.

    I suspect she’s at least right about that—that some Episcopals will take this ball and run with it. Anybody taking bets on Catholic parishes?

  4. Jordanes says:

    “Risible” is right. How do you get from the merest possibility that a woman could have been among the Magi to “evidence that a woman might be among the magi”?

    Another example of the the Auto-Anal Extraction Methodology at work.

    I’m not aware of any evidence that “Magi” could refer to women. As far as I know, “Magi” were male — they were the priestly “tribe” or caste of eastern peoples such as the Medes, Persians, Bactrians, etc. Did those peoples have priestesses? Were there women among the Zoroastrian priesthood?

  5. jamie r says:

    I don’t think you can say his arguments would be laughed at until you read the actual paper he wrote. Non-academic press never gets this sort of thing right. This is about the scholarship, not exegesis, of a professor emiritus on the Dominican faculty of Fribourg. Before that he was at Ecole Biblique. His scholarship should at least be given the benefit of the doubt.

    Even if we grant, arguendo, that his actual argument will be convincing, or if forensic anthropoligists determined that the bodies in Koeln of Balthazar, Melchior, and Caspar were all women, it’s unclear to me why anyone outside a small circle of New Testament scholars and historians should care. Sure, some idiots are going to use this as an argument for women’s ordination, but some idiots will use anything as an argument for women’s ordination.

  6. Fr. Basil says:

    Since, according to tradition, the Magi were later ordained as deacons, presbyters, and bishops by St. Thomas, they were obviously not women.

  7. TJerome says:

    Jesus was probably really a woman in male clothing. Glued on a beard. That will be next. If I were in charge of a University I would rid it of worthless curricula such as : women’s studies, gay studies, transgender studies, black studies, etc., etc., It’s all ideology wrapped up in the guise of legitimate academic studies.

  8. Supertradmum says:

    Ideologies hiding under the guise of true scholarship must be “outed”. Just as in feminist Scripture scholars, the goal is to established women in the hierarchy. Such spurious scholarship is accepted because of the drip, drip, drip years of feminist theology and the revisionist (fake) history regarding the early Church. For a book I wrote years ago, I did extensive and long research on the Magi. The entire caste system of which they most likely were members, was exclusively male.

    So, knowing this has hit the press, we shall see little girls in the Nativity Plays dressed like the kings. What next? Female shepherdesses with the shepherds? Women soldiers killing the Innocents? Women census takers?

    Again, I suggest a look at the earliest art of the Church, including the 20-odd depictions of the Three Kings from the Catacombs. All these clearly show male personages-and one is dates as early at the 200s.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    dated, not dates and may I add that those of us who are conservative in our theological studies would never get jobs at most universities, which love this sort of tripe.

  10. All: Keep in mind that Scripture doesn’t say how many Magi there were. It was later assumed there were three because of the three gifts. However, in the Fathers of the Church there are wide ranging opinions. I think Leo the Great suggested a couple dozen.

  11. Daniel Latinus says:

    I personally think the arguments, as presented in the article are weak, and seem to stem from the symbolic meaning of the visit of the Magi. To me, the more disturbing idea is that the Magi are merely mythic symbols, and their visit never actually happened, which seems to be the unspoken presumption behind the whole line of argumentation.

    And even if one or more of the Magi were actually women, what does it matter to our Faith? It doesn’t change the fact women cannot be admitted to Holy Orders.

  12. Henry Edwards says:

    STM: “What next? Female shepherdesses with the shepherds? Women soldiers killing the Innocents? Women census takers?”

    At least, I suspect we’ll not soon see another woman portraying Jesus in Stations of the Cross at WYD.

  13. jeffreyquick says:

    TJerome, that’s already implicitly there in the article. “wisdom was seen as female, Jesus was wisdom, ergo Jesus was a woman.” And that typology of the Queen of Sheba… you know, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And it wasn’t just the Jews who were patriarchal; all the Middle East of the time was.

  14. tobiasmurphy says:

    The article begins by discussing in detail all of his qualifications…a bad sign. Then there’s the sensationalism and the “9 out of 10 women approve this message” section. What about the meat of his argument? Ambiguous Hebrew gender? The Queen of Sheba was a woman? She was also meant as a sign of the nations coming to the wisdom of God in Israel. She was a sign pointing to the meaning of that story, not the story itself. Generally when looking for parallels in Scripture, don’t we want to compare the most important aspects? In this case, the fact that the Queen of Sheba and the Magi were both foreigners is much more important. Then he notes that Wisdom is often portrayed as feminine in Scripture, but Jesus is Wisdom Incarnate. So did the Magis include someone personifying Wisdom…on the way to visit Wisdom? No, the Queen of Sheba is wise, but only insofar as she seeks Wisdom. It’s the same with the “wise men,” the Magi. They are wise because they seek Wisdom, not because Wisdom is among them.

  15. Peggy R says:

    Leave it to the evangelicals to remain steadfast. I actually went to public school-sponsored K at St. Matthews in Bville…a long time ago. I hope folks at the Shrine discourage the idea of making townswomen into maji.

    Last year at our parish, on Epiphany, 3 women sashayed up the aisle bearing the gifts in dark turtlenecks and slacks. And they were no longer of a nice Emma Peale or Laura Petry physique, if you get my drift. It was not done again this year, thank goodness–at least at the mass we attended.

  16. Supertradmum says:

    Daniel Latinus,

    It matters, as the Early Church Fathers wrote about the Magi and that is part of our Tradition. Also, such ideas mock 2000 years of commentary, art, and even the keeping of relics. Isaiah 60:3, Psalm 72:10, and Psalm 68:29 also refer to the coming of Kings to see the King of Kings. We are a Church of Tradition and Scripture.

    Henry Edwards,

    One of the worst farces at Notre Dame when I was there was the casting of a woman as Christ for the big dramatization in the Church of the Stations of the Cross. It was icky. I would hate to see the same in some rendition of one of the Medieval Nativity Plays.

    Father Z,

    Did not some of the Early Fathers state that there were Twelve Magi, the Gentiles coming in the place of the Tribes of Judah? Maybe you know the reference….I have forgotten it.

  17. Supertradmum says:

    Father Z,

    A seminarian friend of mine just phoned yesterday, and stated that one of the seminarians with him in the graduate seminary where he is studying was arguing that the Three Kings did not exist and that is was all myth. I suggested a reading of your blog. Why are men like this allowed to be ordained? At the minimum, he is denying the Gospels, and Isaiah. I encouraged my friend to point out all the references in Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. I suspect the young man is a liberation theologian, as such hate the rich, as a matter of ideology-the Magi representing power and some wealth. Sadly, it points out that bad teaching will continue into the next generation of priests. This lively discussion happened in the cafeteria at the seminary, over a discussion of the transference of the Obligation Day to Sunday, which is a necessary discussion.

  18. thefeds says:

    I would bet that there is a connection between the fact that this “scripture scholar” (used loosely) had his book published by the Leuven University Press, and the fact that the Leuven was recently closed due to lack of seminarians attending. We can perhaps be grateful that fewer and fewer seminaries will have his tripe on their reading lists.

  19. Stvsmith2009 says:

    Saint Teresa of Avila once wrote, “God, deliver me from sullen saints”. To paraphrase that, God deliver me from biblical “scholars” and “theologians” with a liberal agenda.

  20. JohnW says:

    Who would think such a thing? This is sickening.

  21. albizzi says:

    That’s looks like the purported discovery of the sepulchre of Christ by Cameron.
    Everybody in Jerusalem knows where is the Holy Sepulchre in the eponym church since centuries, but Mr Cameron doesn’t care.

  22. jamie r says:

    John W,

    How is this sickening? I can understand why liberals and Church ladies would be excited by this, but I can’t understand why people on the conservative end would care other than out of a mild intellectual curiosity, especially given that what we have is poor non-Academic reporting. All Fr. Viviano seems to be suggesting is that the text of Matthew leaves open the possibility that there were women among the magi, and possibly that having some women among the magi may make even more sense than having no women among the magi.

    How would this in anyway pose any threat to anything taught by the Church? I cannot see how this poses a challenge to even one single doctrine of the Church. It’s not like if someone conclusively found the bones of Christ, which would be a real problem. Even if turns out they’re all women, even the relics in Cologne are all women, I don’t see how this would carry any significance apart from being a neat bit of trivia. What makes this significant?

  23. mike cliffson says:

    A bit boring. Just a woman.Full stop
    I mean, real original scholarship should produce at least a flying spaghetti monster ( makes one resonate with live muppet spaghetti.) Or how about a hermaphrodite giant with neanderthal genes who is a preincarnation of nancy pelosi, moving along a mystic great circle traced through glastonbury and cheop’s pyramid, and somehow or other tying up with dan browne?

  24. samgr says:

    I’ve always liked La Befana, a woman who, Italian tradition tells us, was too busy cleaning house to accompany the Magi to the Manger. She tried to catch up to them, but never did and so has been doomed through all eternity to bring sweets and gifts to Italian children on the Feast of the Epiphany.

  25. Historically, Zoroastrianism holds that only men can become priests (magi or other kinds). Since being one of the magi involves caring for fire, and since women were prohibited from even looking at a fire during their periods lest they pollute it, you can see where a woman Magi was not on the cards. Here’s a page about Zoroastrian priests and fire-keepers.

    The Gospels aren’t shy about mentioning women when they come along.

  26. gambletrainman says:

    I, too, have heard the folklore of La Befana, but can’t remember why the Magi asked her to join them. I’m wondering if someone is trying to mix folklore with true historical facts to come up with a new “version”. After all, there was a popular movie when I was a child, called “The Other Wise Man”, a fictitional story written in 1896 by Henry van Dyke (1852-1933). That was also fiction, based on the “addition” of an extra person who was supposed to accompany the Magi to visit the newborn Christ Child, but was denied the opportunity.

  27. Oh, dear. According to J.J. Modi’s book The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of the Parsees, according to the Persian Farziat-nameh, a woman having her period was not supposed to look at “water, fire, a holy man, the sun, moon, sky, mountains, stars, and trees” because “Whatever she sees, suffers harm or diminution”. She also had to isolate herself from even getting near men.

    All of which would certainly make it hard to follow a star, unless you were pregnant or old.

  28. Gail F says:

    “La Befana” is a story, like Father Christmas. She was not supposed to be a real person.

    This is a silly argument. The man’s thesis, if it’s really as described, says that the plural could men “men and women sages” as well as “men sages.” Well, the Bible doesn’t say anything more about it — how many “sages” there were, where exactly they came from, or even what sort of “sages” they were. (The information quoted above about Zoroastrian priests, if accurate, would rule out any women among them — but it is by no means certain or even probable that they were Zoroastrian priests.) He then says it’s probable that there was at least one woman because Mary was there, and she wouldn’t have been there if there weren’t any other women around. She couldn’t have had a servant or a neighbor there? Pretty weak.

  29. samgr says:

    Unlike Father Christmas, La Befana teaches a lesson: Cleanliness may be next to godliness to Protestants, but not to us. While making her deliveries, she rides the broom she thought was more important than visiting the newborn Savior.

  30. Lori Pieper says:

    STM: “What next? Female shepherdesses with the shepherds?”

    I don’t see why not. Surely in Biblical times, women participated in looking after a family’s flock along with the men? As Zipporah was doing in Exodus when she drew water to put in the troughs for her father’s flock. I think the flocks in Bethlehem would most likely have been family flocks, since I seem to recall Bethlehem wasn’t really regarded as good grazing territory, so it seems rather unlikely that there would be very large flocks or much need for hired hands. There was evidently even something of a prejudice against “hired hands” looking after flocks at the time; see Jesus’ little diatribe in John 10:11-13). So it was more than likely just the families involved, including wives and children.

    So I would think girls have every right to be shepherds in Nativity plays, even if they can’t be Magi!

  31. Gaz says:

    It’s a long stretch for relevance (warning!). I’ve been lucky enough to have been invited to a couple of Epiphany banquets (I once thought him to be a bit of an eccentric host; now I think he’s particularly Catholic). Nowadays, our family usually spend our Christmas days away from home; right now we’re about to head off for a brief holiday. When I was packing to go, I pulled my Christmas lunch cracker’s crown out of my travelling bag and realised that this must be an Epiphany, and not a Christmas tradition. Why would we wear crown a at Christmas? Actually, I’m concluding that this must be a hangover from our European customs where the big feast (and presents) came at Epiphany (with La Befana). Crowns go with Ephiphany. WE wear the crowns because the kings carry OUR gifts to the Infant Lord. Deo Gratias! Alleluia!

  32. Feminism is a beast hard to die. Some may think that not including a woman in the Magi, or in everything else, is political incorrect so, let’s, in a hurry, put a woman there!

  33. Jordanes says:

    STM: “What next? Female shepherdesses with the shepherds?” I don’t see why not. Surely in Biblical times, women participated in looking after a family’s flock along with the men?

    But among the ancient Israelites, women never, ever went out either alone or with other men to stay out in the fields for weeks on end, away from everyone else. It would have been an occasion of sin and scandal, and it would have been assumed (rightly) that she would almost certainly have engaged in unchaste conduct with the other men.

    Keep in mind also that shepherds in those days were regarded as somewhat unclean and not all that reputable: not the kind of company a respectable woman would spend weeks with out in the fields distant from human habitation.

    On the subject of the shepherds and the flocks near Bethlehem, Alfred Edersheim (a Jewish convert to Anglicanism in the 1800s) made some interesting observations. I don’t recall the title of his book right now, though.

  34. catholicmidwest says:

    This is just too funny. Let me understand this:

    A woman in approximately the year -6BC, from Persia or thereabouts, traveling with 2 intact men, and not being married (or whatever Persians did with their women then) to at least one of them. Yeah, right, that would have been probable.
    And visiting Herod’s household, and getting away alive and intact, herself. Oh yeah, even more probable. Not.

    Come on. How silly does this have to get?????

    Someone should tell these “academics” that they should never let their “educations” get in the way of their learning. It makes them look stupid.

  35. irishgirl says:

    catholicmidwest-the last two sentences in your post hit the nail right on the head: ‘someone should tell these ‘academics’ that they should never let their ‘educations get in the way of their learning. It makes them look stupid.’
    These so-called ‘scholars’ have a lot of intellectual cholesterol inside their brains. Sheesh…..

  36. boko fittleworth says:

    Does modern historico-critical exigesis affirm or deny the traditional teaching that one of the Three Kings had a rubber cigar?

  37. catholicmidwest says:

    Don’t know. Maybe somebody should ask Bill Clinton.

  38. prester says:

    Methinks the good friar is plucking at the straws of the manger:
    or perhaps he ate some of J.M. Allegro’s sacred mushrooms!

  39. I’m not doubting that women traveled in the ancient world, particularly in caravans (they did) or doubting the efficiency and safety of the Imperial roads and statio system (generally pretty safe, and so was imperial Persia’s road system). But yeah, if a Zoroastrian woman were traveling with men, she’d probably be either married to one of ’em or somebody’s mother, unless she were very young. Zoroastrians believed in marrying off the women (and men) fairly early, and their preference was that both men and women only marry once in their lives.

    But Zoroastrian ritual sequestration and purification rituals for women were not generally designed to be followed on the road, unlike the Jewish ones. And unless you were very old or young, it’s hard to be a stargazer if you have to stay indoors wearing mittens for a week, every month or so.

    And yes, there were other groups in the Greek world calling themselves magoi besides actual Magi, but frankly, “sage” isn’t how I’d describe such people. Mages, astrologers, dream-interpreters, and other forms of magicians and diviners were the ones who called themselves “magoi” without being Zoroastrian priests. Why? Because Greeks didn’t really care to draw distinctions between Chaldaean astrologers and spellcasters from Iraq, and a group of Zoroastrian priests from Iran who were descendants of a priestly tribe of Medes.

    However, if you’re talking those folks, you’re not talking an antitype of Sheba down in the Persian Gulf! You’re talking an antitype of the Chaldaean relatives of Abraham, or Balaam the non-Jewish prophet (which is indeed the usual scriptural star reference that’s noticed). I suppose you could also mention the Witch of Endor as a feminine type, but it’s not a flattering one! Queen Jezebel was also supposed to have been a witch. In some Mesopotamian areas, you didn’t want to bury a witch because she might come back undead, so the best thing to do was dismember the witch’s corpse and give it to the dogs; and that’s apparently the point of Jezebel’s body suffering that fate. But what do you expect? Gentile women fiddling with pagan prophecy or the occult just didn’t get any praise in Scripture. Gentile women who respected God and lived good lives, like Ruth, didn’t play with magic and gave up pagan religion. So of course, the Queen of Sheba isn’t generally shown doing either.

    The best way to reference Sheba would be the presence of frankincense and myrrh, which came from down there. (Hence the reading about Sheba and Seba.) But the Sabaeans were not known for occult pursuits; they were businesspeople. (Solomon in legend has the reputation of knowing magic as well as all the other arts and sciences, but the Queen of Sheba was not supposed to have any magical knowledge among her fields of wisdom. Some stories hold that Solomon got her to come by threatening her with his magic, against which she was helpless.) So a Sabaean female magos seems unlikely, according to the laws of narrative — and so, if the “magoi” were supposed to have come from exotic, legendary Sheba instead of just being rich enough to buy and give away gold, frankincense and myrrh, St. Matthew would surely have been interested in mentioning this. (And of course, a lot of Sabaeans were Jewish, because there was a big trading community there; so just having Sabaean visitors to Baby Jesus wouldn’t exactly scream “Gentiles bring tribute”. Jewish legend generally claims that the Queen of Sheba converted to Judaism, and much Ethiopian and Yemeni (modern Sheba and Seba) legend agrees.)

    Magoi — people engaging in pagan pursuits banned by Jewish law — are something else entirely. It’s just a whole other kind of people and story.

  40. Luvadoxi says:

    Re: Peggy R. “Last year at our parish, on Epiphany, 3 women sashayed up the aisle bearing the gifts in dark turtlenecks and slacks. And they were no longer of a nice Emma Peale or Laura Petry physique, if you get my drift. ”

    I may be missing something, as hinted at by them all wearing the same type clothing–were they doing some sort of liturgical dance (“sashaying”)? In our church, the people bringing the gifts just wear regular clothing, and I couldn’t tell if these ladies were just wearing regular clothing or some sort of coordinated outfit (which would seem sort of strange, I agree). What is the objection exactly? I am a little put off by the comment on their physiques…I’m an orthodox faithful Catholic of a “certain age” and my figure isn’t what it used to be either. What does this have to do with women taking on inappropriate roles? Just really wondering….maybe you could clarify?

    (Sorry if I didn’t quote properly….I don’t understand the HTML notes and instructions….)

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